Wednesday, March 16, 2016

An Agent's Inbox #17

Dear Brent Taylor:

DAMAGED GOODS, a contemporary young adult novel, is complete at 71,000 words.

Sixteen-year-old Justin Marshall has caused trouble for years, but he never expected his father to kick him out of the house.When Justin is sent to live with a grandmother he can’t remember, he vows to escape. Leaving becomes difficult, however, when he realizes that Margaret suffers from dementia and needs his help.

Dad has always been all talk, no action, so Justin is shocked and outraged when he is sent to live with a grandmother he doesn’t remember. Physically deserted by his mother and emotionally abandoned by his father, Justin can’t imagine caring about an old woman. He plans to keep his praying, cussing, Star Wars quoting, cat-loving grandmother at a distance. He is surprised to discover that his usual ways of interacting with adults--brooding, sarcasm, and ridicule--do not bring about the typical reaction from Margaret. His grandmother possesses a healthy sense of humor and a strength that matches his own. She defends him against Dad’s constant criticism, cooks his favorite meals, and shares his love of music. As he begins to bond with Margaret, however, he realizes that she suffers from dementia. Justin knows that if people in her small southwest Oklahoma town discover her impaired memory, he will be unable to stay with her. As her illness progresses, keeping her memory loss a secret becomes increasingly difficult, and his patience and problem-solving abilities are challenged. Justin must decide whether to run from the situation or take care of his grandmother.

I have been writing for most of my life, and my stories, poems, and essays have been published in over twenty magazines. For a year, I wrote feature articles for a weekly newspaper, and many years ago I published a middle grade novel. After raising three children and enjoying a teaching career, I now write almost exclusively for children. Middle grade and young adult fiction are my strongest interests. I participate in a critique group and I’m an active volunteer in SCBWI.



Blue elastic waist pants cover my grandmother’s flat butt, and her flowered shirt screams Old Lady Special. She’s definitely a Wal-martian, even though I haven’t seen a Wally World since we left the interstate an hour ago. That’s how far we are from civilization.

Wooden steps groan as I follow her up to the porch. I drop my suitcases and backpack onto decaying, splintered boards. A scraggly plant has pushed its way through a crack but now droops with exhaustion near my feet.

When Dad told me I’d be living with his mother, I figured it would be a nice house. Not as big or new as his, maybe, but nice. This looks like the kind of place with a meth lab in the kitchen.

It’s daytime, but a porch light has been left on. One of the glass panes around the bulb is broken. Under it, a faded sign reads “Beware! Guard Cat on Duty.”

My grandmother turns toward me and beams. Her eyes--green like Dad’s--study me through red framed glasses. “Welcome to Meow Manor, Justin.”

Her laugh is almost a cackle. A chill creeps over me, even though it’s warm for October and I’m wearing a hoodie.

I can’t live in a shack in Red Dirt, Oklahoma with an old woman I don’t remember. I’ve got to get out of here.

While my grandmother digs in her supersized red purse and mutters about keys, I check out other houses on the block.


N.H.G. said...

The voice and clarity of your opening page is great--hard not to love a first sentence that includes "grandmother's flat butt" in it!

I'm not sure this is as clearly communicated in the middle paragraph of the query. I might suggest breaking it up, for starters ("As he begins to bond with Margaret..." would be a good opening phrase for a new paragraph), and seeing if you can condense the beginning of the first middle paragraph ("Justin can't imagine caring about an old woman".) Even though it's all really telling, it might be a bit too much information for a query?

Good luck!

Jamie Beth Cohen said...

I think the first paragraph gives us some info that's repeated in the second paragraph and the repetition broke up the flow for me. While it's all interesting and I want to read more (the sample is great!) I think focusing on the stakes and streamlining the query may be useful.

Good luck!

C.E. said...

The premise and opening page of your novel are really intriguing! However, I noticed there was a lot of redundant information in the query letter. Maybe delete the standalone sentences after the word count, as most of what you reveal there is covered in the next paragraph. Your credentials are impressive but I don't know if it's necessary for you to mention you participate in a critique group. Also, one thing that stuck out in your first 250 is the sort of abrupt transition from Justin's internal protest "I can't live in a shack in Red Dirt, Oklahoma..." to "I check out the other houses on the block". Maybe have him dwell on his objection longer, or show how he dislikes the situation he's in through his actions. By having him look at the other houses, it makes it sound like he's accepting the situation.
Good luck!

Gayleen Rabakukk said...

I really like the premise and the opening page sets the scene well.
I'm really intrigued by the "keeping her memory loss a secret" and wonder if it's not just the neighbors he's trying to hide this from, but maybe also his Dad? (just trying to get an idea of the stakes) Wondering if that might be a stronger hook for the first paragraph - Justin vowed to escape living with the grandmother he didn't remember, but now he's spending all his energy on keeping her secret safe?
Also wondering what sort of time passes - is it weeks, months?
In the closing query paragraph, I'd move the MG novel up: I have been writing most of my life and many years ago published a middle grade novel (with ---publisher name) Just think that deserves higher billing than newspapers and magazine articles :-)
Don't know that you're looking for a comp title, but Three Bird Summer by Sara St. Antoine also has a grandmother with memory loss, but it's MG and the boy and his mother are visiting grandma for summer vacation.
Good Luck!!!

Brent Taylor said...

I was a bit confused here by the redundancy -- you could entirely eliminate the first paragraph, since all of that information is reiterated in the second paragraph. I'm also having a difficult time placing my finger on the stakes. If grandmother's dementia is found out, then he can't stay with her, and Justin gets sent home -- are those the core stakes of the novel? I'd revisit these two items and tweak accordingly.